While the public sentiment around science has varied widely over the years, there was a significant dip in public trust after the Second World War. The development of nuclear technology, while initially viewed positively, soon led to political tensions and public sentiment becoming more critical of the scientists involved. This affected funding decisions and hampered research across many scientific disciplines.
In 1985 the British Science Association published The Public Understanding of Science (also known as the Bodmer Report), outlining the case for building public trust in science by making it more accessible to a wider audience.
“Science and technology play a major role in most aspects of our daily lives both at home and at work. Our industry and thus our national prosperity depend on them. Almost all public policy issues have scientific or technological implications. Everybody, therefore, needs some understanding of science, its accomplishments and its limitations.”
From here, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science formed, ushering in a new approach to science communication. It was no longer focused on the ‘deficit model’ – i.e. that the public were lacking in knowledge and that gaining it would make them care more about science in the abstract. Instead there became a wider conversation about the role of science in the lives of the public, and the benefits to society in having more scientifically engaged citizens.
This brings us to the recent past – roughly 2000 onward. For a time there was a proliferation of effort trying to enthuse the public about scientific research, but there was still an imbalance – and a missed opportunity. This is highlighted in a now-infamous study in which nuclear scientists were studying the effects of Chernobyl fallout on Cumbrian sheep. Because they ignored the lay knowledge of the farmers (either deliberately or ignorantly) they missed out in receiving important data on the behaviour of the sheep and environmental factors, and eventually their experimental models failed. If they had worked with the farmers to share expertise it is likely they would have been much more successful.
The citizen science boom of the 2000s ties into this somewhat, though it treats lay audiences more like computers than active participants in the research.
By recognising the expertise within lay audiences and inviting them to contribute to the research process it is thought that the ensuing results will be much richer and more meaningful. This approach is known as the co-creation of research and is a standard that is upheld by many today (such as Wellcome and UKRI) as the ‘gold standard’ in science communication.
What will the next 10 years look like in science communication? With challenges like the climate crisis, global pandemic and antimicrobial resistance ahead of us it’s more important than ever that we communicative effectively with, and work productively with, all audiences and stakeholders. Let’s hope we’re up for the job.
Firstly it’s important to mention: this focuses on European/UK scicomm history and is not reflective of the journeys of other cultures and countries around the world, all of which have a rich history of engagement with science. The Journal of Science Communication had a special issue dedicated to different narratives, and it’s worth checking out: Issue 03, Special Issue: History of Science Communication, 2017
Looking back to the oldest records of science in culture, there are many examples of the democratisation of scholarly debate in places like ancient Greece which lead to an accelerated growth in scientific knowledge and practice. When everybody is invited to take part in the discussion, new ideas and fresh perspectives emerge. It also made the sharing of existing knowledge open to all without restriction. Unfortunately not all technology lent itself to openness; with the advent of the Dark Ages knowledge became more restricted, and the written word meant that it was suddenly inaccessible to people without the literacy or money to afford hand-printed books.
The Enlightenment – roughly beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe – included major advancements in both philosophical and scientific thought. Once again there was a movement towards the ‘public sphere’, which is both a philosophical notion and a practical one. Knowledge was created through dialogue and debate, and places where these discussions took place sprang up all over – salons, cafés, public lectures, journalism. Scientific discoveries of the time were often shared through these means as well as in scholarly journals, as the printing press made it possible to mass-produce treatises and books for a wider audience.
The Royal Society was formed by an independent group of scientists in the 1620s in England in order to provide a venue in which empirical science could be tested and ‘witnessed’ to give it legitimacy. This lead to vast public demonstrations and lectures, though even these were limited to individuals in civic society with the right knowledge and ‘moral standing’. The Society also became a place for the government to find advisors, allowing scientists to feed into policy (and occasionally vice versa).
In 1831 the British Science Association was formed, which had an even more openly stated mission to improve the perception – and by extension, the knowledge of – science within the UK. Much like the Society it provided a place for public discussion and debate on science, including the infamous 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate on the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
By the 1920s the Association was sparking debates on topics like ethics, the social responsibility of scientists and the role of science in social progress. Though these topics have always been vital to the progression of science, this was one of the first times they had been discussed at large, and with such a membership.
So how do we bring everythingfrom Homeward Bound – the women, the science, the leadership lessons – together to address complex real world leadership problems? We were very fortunate to have Musimbi Kanyoro on board as our ‘elder’, who has extensive experience from leading the Global Fund for Women and many other nonprofit human rights organisations. Her sessions were always incredibly inspiring, which you can get a sense of if you read her own blog post after coming back from Homeward Bound:
Antarctica has spoken to me…. we are such a small thing in this ocean. We can be supported, and we can be roughed up. We must realise that we can try and do things to help the vulnerabilities we see, and we must also recognise that if we don’t, we will continually destabilise the root of nature and then ruin the only possibilities we have.
Here we come to the heart of why we went to Antarctica: both the epic scale of what we saw and the epic changes which were so visible there show that action is needed to preserve our planet for future generations. And, being in a closed environment with other women in science for 3 weeks created, as Musimbi called it, a ‘leadership laboratory’ where we were able to learn and plan and accomplish so much more than a weeklong course in a conference center somewhere, or an online course once a week. It was an immersive environment for making change, and as the faculty frequently told us, the 13th faculty member was Antarctica. Listening to the voice of that wilderness was one of the most important things we did there, balanced with the task of making that voice more widely heard. As Wallace Stegner puts it, “instead of listening to the silence, we have shouted into the void.” That must change.
However, it’s a hard task to bring everyone to the table. Homeward Bound aims to empower women with legacy minded leadership skills, to be collaborative and inclusive rather than self-promoting. I’ve written about how our participants came from many countries and many walks of life, and the age range spanned from 25 to 70. But there was still room for broader intersectionality in who was on board, and what is wonderful is that we discussed this openly, many times, with the leaders of Homeward Bound. Given that the program is based in Australia, it attracts many Australians, lots of English speakers from the US and Europe… but relatively fewer people from South America, Asia, and Africa. These are huge continents to have sparse representation from, and HB acknowledged the difficulty they have found in attracting broader cohorts and wanted our help in making things better. There was also an underrepresentation of LGBTQ and other minority groups who have been historically excluded, and intersectionality was an agreed upon priority for everyone but also, a work in progress.
Even though the participants and faculty my year were the most diverse yet, I was glad that the program acknowledged the work still to be done on diversity and showed willingness to go further; to me, this reflects the challenges we all face as leaders in building diverse teams and projects. My own experiences in physics research, working in higher education, and running public engagement projects have all shown me that some forms of inclusion and equity are relatively easy, and some are harder. But we do this work because it matters, and even when we make mistakes, there is always an opportunity to show we can do better. As the brilliant Melissa McEwan described it, allyship is a process and not an identity – each action a chance to work toward our purpose. This also helps us not to be defensive when we fail, a lesson that applies to leadership and life equally.
Now that all 100 of us who went through this intense learning experience together are back home, how can we translate what we’ve learned to our everyday environments? I have found my 100 day action plan a great help (from our strategy work with Kit Jackson), as well as encouragement from the other participants and faculty members. People who experience Homeward Bound purportedly have a higher than average rate of job change or divorce after they return, and I think it’s clear why: the program asks the difficult questions, pushing you to go to the heart of who you are and why you are doing the things you are doing. Fortunately, HB provides a safe environment to explore those questions, and a community to support each other as we all try to act on our values, combating sexism in STEM as well as climate change, and making a world with better leaders for the greater good.
The next call for applications to be part of Homeward Bound will be open in March here. Please do feel free to get in touch with me if you are considering applying; it has been an incredibly empowering experience for me which I would wholeheartedly recommend. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do this, and the support of many colleagues, friends and family – it has been a transformational experience even though I suspect the transformation is still in progress!
Last time I told you about Homeward Bound, the women in STEM leadership program that brought me to Antarctica, and some of the things we all learned about ourselves on the ship. It was quite an incredible environment, intense and self-contained so that we all had space to think about what we were learning, and many people to discuss it with. It was a wonderful environment to learn more about ourselves: our behaviors and our values.
Broadening our focus out from the self, we also talked quite a lot with Graciela Szwarcberg about different issues that can arise when managing a team. How do you have a conversation with someone about a miscommunication, about an issue in performance, about a problem that isn’t going away? Graci led us through the 5 dysfunctions of a team, and many exercises which, to me, were about empathy, directness in communication, and considering how team dynamics can evolve and change and how that affects what work can be done. So helpful, and echoed some things I read a long time ago in the book Difficult Conversations, but in a workplace context which was really useful.
Before we got on the ship, they had us all fill out a tool called the LSI – Life Styles Inventory, and we also had people who worked with us fill out the same questions about us. The LSI has been validated in research as an effective tool for behavioural change, and the idea was to help show us our constructive as well as our defensive behavioural patterns, in hopes of helping us reduce the behaviours that aren’t constructive (and in fact, waste energy that could be spent constructively). I have to say, I was initially wary of the LSI, perhaps from teenage years spent filling out many surveys that purported to tell you about yourself but were really just saying the kind of vague, generalizable things that you often read in horoscopes. But after lots of time working with it, I did see the value of a deep and detailed way to analyze behavior, especially once we were on the ship and could discuss or see behavior patterns in action.
I had an LSI coach over the summer, provided by Homeward Bound, who helped me navigate the ideas and identify patterns I had, of avoiding difficult things sometimes or being competitive/perfectionist in the way that academia often rewards. The LSI coach was especially useful in contextualizing my results in my personal circumstances (for example, bereavement) and framing what kinds of behavioural change could be doable for me. After all, we are all different people who will act in different ways, but there are often ways to break bad patterns and establish new and better habits, which helps both us and those around us. I found this part of the program especially challenging, but I also have to say that it helped having so many others on the same journey with me, and I have never felt so supported and accepted by such a large group of scientists.
There was also a strong focus on the ship on science communication, and the many different forms it can take, which of course I greatly enjoyed and appreciated. They warned us beforehand that some parts of the programme might feel easy and obvious, and others might feel challenging and confronting – for me the science communication parts were familiar and fun, from my time organizing Bright Club, Soapbox Science, speaking on the radio, etc. But the science communication content then dovetailed with visibility – the idea of being visible, which is a fraught topic for many women, and what you can do to use visibility for the greater good. As our visibility team of Jen Martin and Julia May told us, ‘visibility without purpose is vanity’, so we talked a lot about why we might need to be visible as leaders and again how that might tie into our values and goals. I think this is really important for women, because women who speak up often face a greater backlash than men who have the same message, and women receive more social conditioning to be agreeable and not upset anyone which makes them more vulnerable to that backlash. Lots was also covered about resilience, and accepting that failing from time to time doesn’t make YOU a failure. If you go outside your comfort zone, and actively try to learn and grow, you will sometimes slip up. But that’s ok if you can acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward with a better idea of what to do next time. Again, a really important life skill.
So how do we bring these pieces together to solve complex, real world leadership problems? I’ll talk about that next time in my last blog post about Homeward Bound.
When I first heard about a program aimed at women in STEM to develop their leadership potential, over the course of a year, with a capstone voyage to Antarctica, I knew immediately that I wanted to apply. I am a feminist physicist, but have always been a bit wary of leadership and management courses aimed at women that effectively say, you are broken unless you act more like men. But Homeward Bound seemed different – motivated by the greater good, recognizing that we need better leadership to address societal issues like climate change, and honoring the ability that women have to synthesize knowledge, think of others, and cultivate a legacy mindset rather than pursuing short term opportunism. I also really liked the global outlook of the program, with participants from countries across the world and at all career stages and ages of their lives. As someone living outside my country of birth, looking at worldwide issues and trying to find the connections between science, society, and culture, having such a diverse group of women all focused on the same issues sounded incredibly inspiring to me.
And of course, Antarctica! From my experience in the Arctic I knew full well the power that wilderness has to inspire, to provoke reflection, and to show us the consequences of our actions. At the time I applied, I was just coming out of six months of deep grief after losing my father, and it felt crazy to hope for an experience like this. Imagine being on a ship in Antarctica surrounded by incredible women. A dream, right?
So it was a shock when I was actually accepted onto the program: I had signed up for a year of leadership training, and a substantial amount of fundraising, followed by a sure-to-be incredible voyage to the bottom of the world. We had monthly video calls with faculty, homework, reading, coaching, and a lot of preparation. It was all pretty interesting, and I enjoyed talking to the other participants I met through discussion groups or our UK/Ireland chat group, but I have to admit that before I arrived in Ushuaia, at the southern end of Argentina to actually get on the ship, I wasn’t sure how all the training they were throwing at us would fit together.
One of the first things we did, which I later realized actually formed the connecting strands between everything else, was a values elicitation exercise. This was led by Fabian Dattner, and the intent was to help us understand our own motivations, why we do the things we do and what is most intrinsically rewarding to us. We considered it in the contexts of our work, our relationships, and our selves, but many people (myself included) found the same values coming across in different forms on all those fronts. When I had identified my own values – creativity, connectedness, empathy – suddenly a lot of my own projects made more sense to me. I have always viewed research as a creative endeavor, and spoken at length about the parallels between research and artistic practices like comedy, music, dance. And my love for interdisciplinary science also comes from a desire to make connections across fields, between different schools of thought. But I also care about connecting people, and understanding them, in both professional and personal contexts. My public engagement work strongly reflects these values, which is why Bright Club for example is so rewarding to run.
We did a lot of work with Kit Jackson of Strategy Together to turn our values into a personal strategy: she would ask us, based on our values, to think about our aspirations, what we hoped to achieve, and thus what our priorities were. We eventually turned these into action plans, and it was very interesting to see what actions led naturally from our values – as well as what actions were not there at all, but might be part of our daily activity. One surprising benefit for me of doing this work was discovering how many of the work and life pieces I cared about are things I don’t have direct control over. You can’t control other people, which is both wonderful and difficult, and thinking of the things I wanted to do with my time but then also reflecting on whether or not I could make them part of an action plan was actually a great exercise in finding out what I just can’t control. Which is very important to recognize!
These workshops and classes lasted about four hours each day, but often we would spend mealtimes and the shore visits discussing the same topics, or self-organising other lectures and projects (including an improv class that I co-led along with Ana Payo Payo!). Next time I’ll talk about how these learnings about the self connected to our interactions with others, and the broader context that we all hoped to do some good in.
Sometimes, science can feel like a joke. Experiments don’t work, simulations produce physically impossible outcomes, and a question that you thought would take two weeks to answer instead can take two years. All too often we hide the messiness of science, presenting progress as linear rather than admitting the missteps and follies along the way. But surprises and setbacks shape the story of science as a human endeavor, and if we are unwilling to share this side of science, to laugh at ourselves, we risk alienating society from science altogether.
You might be thinking, but science isn’t funny, it’s an important and serious business! In my view, that is exactly why we should find the humour in it. Scientific progress saves lives, and technological advances improve quality of life across the globe. This means that public understanding of and participation in science has never been more important, especially as scientific issues such as climate change and energy usage increasingly impact politics and people worldwide. Research in education tells us that playful approaches to learning information can actually aid in retention and understanding, so educators now encourage learners to generate their own content on a topic – to be able to tell a story. Or write a joke.
What is a joke, after all, but a surprising reversal, a change in viewpoint that completely reframes the information that came before? These sorts of reversals happen in science all the time, and scientists are used to having their viewpoints upended by new data. In fact, many of the skills that are important in science are also important in writing comedy: creativity, a willingness to upend the status quo, and indeed a subversive approach to authority in pursuit of a deeper truth. But more importantly, consider the audience. When a person listens to a joke, they are waiting for the other shoe to drop and the punchline to be revealed: they are waiting to change their mind. In this era of polarized news and information bubbles, what other approach to communication of complex ideas could possibly be more powerful than comedy?
It is this ethos that underlies Bright Club, a series of variety nights combining academic research and stand-up comedy. I have run Bright Club events in Ireland since 2015, training researchers from science, social science, and humanities and bringing them together with comedians and musicians for thought-provoking shows. The Bright Club format itself was pioneered in the UK by Steve Cross in 2009, and Bright Club events now take place in many European countries. Before each event, academics are trained in stand-up comedy techniques, a skill set which they often find useful in teaching and other science communication events.
In the 60+ events our Bright Club team has held in Ireland, which take place in informal spaces from pubs to music and comedy festivals, we have found an audience which is diverse and excited to hear from academics who reject the notion of the ivory tower. The talks are always engaging and the interdisciplinary nature of the events helps connect science to the broader constellation of human knowledge, drawing in people from all walks of life. We’ve also found that speakers who take part in Bright Club find comedy empowering: not only does it help them to communicate more accessibly, without jargon, but it helps them to communicate authentically, to find their own voices and their own unique perspectives on their own research. Participation in public engagement events like Bright Club often leads to a strengthened sense of agency and scientific identity, but the use of humour adds an extra level to this by allowing researchers to connect their professional selves to their personal selves. Audiences see researchers in their full humanity, and researchers often report that Bright Club is the first time they have felt that this humanity could be part of their work.
Science affects all of society, and hence it is of critical importance to bring researchers into public spaces to engage the public with what they do. Comedy is an invaluable tool for engagement, not least because the audience response adds the element of dialogue. Researchers report that the laughter and comments from the audience, as well as the process of writing jokes and reflecting on their own work, gave them new ideas and perspective on their research. And audiences reported great joy in hearing academic research presented so engagingly, in a fun setting, with a mix of different topics. Facts don’t speak for themselves – they need ambassadors. So isn’t it time we all started taking ourselves a bit less seriously?
Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:
If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.
To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of
wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies
between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us. It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense
of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand
mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was
born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place
with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring
our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted.
The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what
you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you
or your narratives.
Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:
The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.
I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.
Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica. This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.
The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.
Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?
After coming back from the Arctic, I became
vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it
differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we
are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the
destruction of the planet we call home.
How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not
choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward
corporations and governments?
Perspective is important, but perspective
without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for
new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our
planet and in ourselves.
I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help.